Bhagwati’s ‘ab ki baar…’ politics

Unsurprisingly, Jagdish Bhagwati is a sort of academic celebrity these days. In addition to the tag of being the most famous living economist to have never won a Nobel prize, Bhagwati has earned himself the credential of being an unabashed supporter of Narendra Modi. This was established beyond doubt when in January, earlier this year, Bhagwati, along with his protégé, Arvind Panagariya (both professors at Columbia University, New York), weighed in with an impassioned response in a letter to the editor on The Economist magazine. This was a response to an article in the same magazine that called upon Modi to atone for his role in the Gujarat riots of 2002. Not in the least bit surprising then that Bhagwati has the ear of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the potential winning side in the parliamentary elections.

Bhagwati and Panagariya have extolled the virtues of governance in Gujarat. Even when going hammer and tongs against Amartya Sen, Bhagwati sought to hang his arguments on Gujarat. His frequent co-author in making these arguments is Panagariya, who has argued, amongst on other issues, that the higher rates of malnutrition in India (compared with even sub-Saharan Africa) is due to the World Health Organization’s adopted metrics which are flawed and put India at a disadvantage. This argument has been picked apart by several discerning researchers.

There is no doubt, however, that this argument would suit Gujarat (where chief minister Modi once suggested innocuously that girls are malnourished because they are beauty conscious), which has seen heavy corporate activity and growth while lagging far behind on indicators such as malnutrition.

It is important to examine the economic model espoused by Bhagwati, a model that he sees demonstrated (in part, at least) in Gujarat and one that his contemporary and friend, the economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was unable to implement in India over the last decade. Much of Bhagwati’s objection to the United Progressive Alliance’s economic policy is about the so-called populist doles propagated by it. However, in last year’s debates on the National Food Security Bill debates, Modi argued that the Bill was not comprehensive enough and pointed to the BJP’s successes in Chhattisgarh where the state government delivered rice at cheaper rates to a larger section of the population than the Bill proposed.

Also, industrialization in Gujarat rests largely on an administrative climate where the state government ensures speedy clearances for corporate investment plans, makes land available cheaply and ignores violations of environmental norms by industry. In these respects, it is not too different from rival Congress-ruled Haryana and Maharashtra. Are giving up public resources for private gain and tolerating unprecedented amounts of revenue foregone in the form of waivers for corporate houses the kind of liberalization policies that Bhagwati would like to see?

Finally, in supporting Modi, Bhagwati credits much of Gujarat’s successes to him. There is plenty of data out there that suggests that Modi has neither transformed nor built Gujarat from scratch. He ignores longitudinal data on Gujarat and its contemporary states that clearly show Gujarat has always been amongst the better performing states in India, at least as far as economic indices are concerned. Also, the most significant leaps out of poverty has been made by states like Bihar, under the leadership of Nitish Kumar. And if there is one thing the Kerala model—that Panagariya (and by extension, Bhagwati?) dislike—should teach us, it is that all-round development is systemic, inclusive and stems from a state-led model that prioritizes the social sector. Most importantly, it makes little sense to credit certain individuals for the development trajectory.

There was some speculation recently about Bhagwati accepting a role with the government of India in case Modi came to power. In his trademark humility, Bhagwati is reported to have been reluctant to accept the position of chief economist (or economic adviser) to the next prime minister, should the opportunity arise. He couldn’t have made a wiser decision, given that the economics of the BJP is quite at odds with that of Modi and what Modi does in his personal fiefdom of Gujarat is possibly impossible to replicate on a national scale. I may be getting ahead of myself. The election results are around the corner and we will know soon enough

Chomsky on "is America over"?

Several gems in this piece, as usual – 

The first major successful resistance to US hegemony was in 1949. That’s when an event took place that, interestingly, is called “the loss of China”. It’s a very interesting phrase, never challenged. There was a lot of discussion about who is responsible for the loss of China. It became a huge domestic issue. But it’s a very interesting phrase. You can only lose something if you own it. It was just taken for granted: we possess China – and, if they move toward independence, we’ve lost China

So the principle on which the international system is based is that the US is entitled to use force at will. To talk about the US violating international law or something like that is amazingly naive, completely silly

Take a look at the year-end issue of Foreign Affairs, the main establishment journal. Its big front-page cover asks, in bold face, “Is America Over?” It’s a standard complaint of those who believe they should have everything. 

I’ve occasionally quoted one of my favourite illustrations of this, which is from a well-known, very good liberal foreign policy analyst, James Chace, a former editor of Foreign Affairs. Writing about the overthrow of the Salvador Allende regime and the imposition of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1973, he said that we had to “destabilise” Chile in the interests of “stability”. That’s not perceived to be a contradiction – and it isn’t. We had to destroy the parliamentary system in order to gain stability, meaning that they do what we say. So yes, we are in favour of stability in this technical sense

…our yearning for democracy, that’s about on the level of Joseph Stalin talking about the Russian commitment to freedom, democracy and liberty for the world. It’s the kind of statement you laugh about when you hear it from commissars or Iranian clerics, but you nod politely, and maybe even with awe, when you hear it from their western counterparts.

Barack Obama was a senator before he was president. He didn’t do much as a senator, but he did a couple of things, including one he was particularly proud of. In fact, if you looked at his website before the primaries, he highlighted the fact that, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, he co-sponsored a Senate resolution demanding that the United States do nothing to impede Israel’s military actions until they had achieved their objectives, and censuring Iran and Syria because they were supporting resistance to Israel’s destruction of southern Lebanon, incidentally, for the fifth time in 25 years. So they inherit the right (to use violence)

One should be grateful to people like Chomsky just for reassuring us that not conforming is not stupid (it can in fact, be brilliant) and every alternate theory need not be derided as a conspiracy theory (when in fact, it is the obvious truth!)

Lessons for the field

  • It is possible to make a difference to lives of people by sustained intervention at the grassroots. Keep in mind, the concept of big and small development – the big can take over the small, but don’t wait for the positive big swell to take you over; and dont worry about the negative swell undoing all of your good work. While you are on the ground, keep chipping away
  • No one out there wants your sympathy, except maybe your underpaid long serving colleagues. But if the communities you are working with see you getting emotional, you are in for trouble. However, admire openly. That usually works.
  • Any change is excruciatingly slow. Patience is key in everything – action and communication. For that reason alone, dont worry about taking your time
  • People usually don’t change because you want them to. They may not be willing to change even if its over an issue you are convinced is to their benefit. They mostly, merely respond to incentives. Understand the incentives involved and try to get them right
  • Some like to be photographed – some don’t. They dont expect you to, but respect this choice.
  • This one was obvious – not all the disprivileged are good souls. Watch out for the smart ones. If you are one, they can be, too.
  • You are never one among them. Keep trying, but don’t claim to have mastered it and even if you do claim so, please don’t believe it yourself.
  • People do not know everything. There is definitely a lot that you can teach them. There is a lot more for you to learn, but thats obvious, right?
  • Approach your job analytically. When in trouble, reflect on what’s going on and what that teaches you about yourself, about development and about how organisations run
  • Start writing – field reports, if nothing else; doesn’t matter if noone is reading. Do it for yourself 
  • Don’t obssess about ‘influencing policy’ – focus on ‘good change’ instead.
  • Learn the language. Works like nothing else can.

"Lets be democratic about this one…"

Lucknow University teachers have had enough!  

The Lucknow University Teachers’ Association (LUTA) has decided to convene a meeting of its teaching staff to elect its five most corrupt members.

Many teachers of the university have been accused of corruption in recent months. “Some indulged in dishonest practices during admission. Those in the finance department allegedly embezzled funds. As a result, the entire teaching community on the campus has been branded corrupt.

“We decided to do something to prevent this kind of generalisation,” R. V. Singh, general secretary of LUTA, said.

“At the meeting, each teacher will write on a piece of paper the name of the teacher he considers the most corrupt. He will also mention the reason for his choice. We will announce their names,” he added.

Singh said they were trying to convince all 450 teachers to participate. “If at least 300 members join in the secret voting, we can draw up a list,” he said.

h/t: Accountability Initiative 

Dress to kill

Please do not embarrass us is basically what the Ministry of Health seems to be trying to convey through the Roving Bandit.

Those of us who work in the ‘sector’ are familiar with the liberties some people take in the name of being non-conformist or anti-establishment. In India, the ‘kurta and jhola’ are standard NGO-wallah symbols. Add to that a stubble and open sandals – and you are sure to be known as a left-leaning intellectual. Sure enough, I have played to the stereotype, but it also helped that I had been wearing kurtas from long before I started working for Gram Vikas in Orissa.

I do agree that some people literally dress to kill. But then, I am also as vehemently in disagreement with over-dressing. For instance, I see men wearing suits and ties in the hot and humid Ghana. Sure, if I walk into their offices here even wearing a loose shirt and jeans, I would feel terribly under-dressed. However, it is official etiquette…wonder if they will ever be relaxed.
But there is hope – whenever anyone wears any local fabric, the official dress code vanishes. From colourful prints to over-sized gown-like attire…it is seriously casual, but smart. Much like the kurta-jhola look back home…

Idiots fool creator?

I am blogging about this only because a previous entry was sparked off by the movie 3 Idiots (3I). The row between Chetan Bhagat and the makers of 3I is too farcial to be true. In an interview to Rediff, this is what Hirani said:

Chetan gave me this book to read and I wanted to make a film on it. But I knew right from the start that I could not make a film completely on the book, as it was very anecdotal and a film needs a plot. So I had decided to rewrite it in a screenplay format. You’ll see that the film is very different from the book. After I wrote the script, I called Chetan and narrated it to him. I told him that if he did not like the script, I would stop the project. But he was okay with it.


3I is totally based on Bhagat’s Five Point Someone (FPS). Chopra and Hirani apparently are claiming otherwise. The movie is very faithful to the book and there is absolutely no way anyone in the audience (who has read the book) is going to miss that. So who is lying?

That said, there are these possibilities –

  1. Bhagat and the producers had a deal which Bhagat reneged on when the movie became such a smash-hit. He felt denied and wanted his share of fame. Ah. Minor problem there – Bhagat is already a best-selling fiction writer in India. And in the hands of a team like Chopra-Hirani-Aamir, only an idiot (not the kinds feted in the movie) could have been doubtful of the movie’s commercial success. But are we to believe that Bhagat went along with the production for the last two years without even reading the final script? Eh! something wrong there…
  2. The producers and Aamir are being petty, first denying credit to Bhagat and now accusing him of pulling a publicity stunt. Which is unfortunate because Aamir is usually trying to appeal to the intelligent (we will for now ignore questions about the veracity of the said group’s intelligence) audience, particularly the urban youth. Unfortunately for Aamir, it is this precise crowd thats likely to have read FPS. Just take a look at his Twitter page…. So it is stupid of Aamir to even go down that lane.

So what is going on? I am not inclined to think that this was a joint effort by both parties just to gain publicity. I wouldn’t care about this bollywood gossip normally, but this is different because the people, the book and the film are so big. It is insane in the way it would be if Dan Brown and Tom Hanks/Ron Howard had got into a row over Da Vinci Code/Angels and Demons.   

To Chopra and Hirani – where is your gandhigiri ??

Responsible ‘giving’

Saundra, writing the blog Good Intentions are not Enough has been tireless in challenging conventional notions of charitable giving.

I absolutely love the title of the blog. Also the fact that the author argues for more responsible ‘giving’ – at both the individual and institutional levels. The blog highlights the importance of a well-thought out act, especially relevant since we dont always think much when giving, and are happy to not be called upon to engage and follow-up.

Consider the usual circumstances under which we ‘give’:

1. ‘Giving’ to get rid of someone: it could be the beggar on the street/traffic signal; the flood victim at our door-step with (a highly suspicious) certificate; local youth/sports/religious club/trust who will not take ‘no’ for an answer.
Chances that we care about what happened to/with either our contribution and/or the beneficiary – minimal

2. ‘Giving’ to get rid of something that we don’t really need or something insignificant in value: one of Saundra’s principal targets – read her blog for ammo on this one – this one, usually involves petty cash, old clothes/furniture/books and is given away to the household help/local charity…
Chances that we care about what happened to/with either our contribution and/or the beneficiary – zero

3. ‘Giving’ out of compulsion: In my first job, I along with all my colleagues made a mandatory 2% contribution from our salaries to the residential school run by the NGO. No one complained and I am sure most people didn’t oppose the idea
Chances that we care about what happened to/with either our contribution and/or the beneficiary – better than 1 and 2 – if only to ever have a reason to demand that the deductions stop.

4. ‘Giving’ in to peer pressure: “Everyone else is giving Rs. 100. I must too, otherwise…”; when your children are out with their collection boxes for the drought/flood/earthquake victims; when your office/club organises a fund-raiser etc
Chances that we care about what happened to/with either our contribution and/or the beneficiary – Still not too bright, I am afraid…

5. ‘Giving’ because we believe; we care and have attempted at least an optimal level of research: Some of us do a lot of this already – in helping educate someone we know, a loan for family emergencies for someone who needs help (and we care about). It is here that more of us need to show up. For it is here that we are likely to care, to demand results (at least honest effort) and we learn over time. Individual donors could have a steep learning curve if they invested more in their early ‘giving’ decisions. For tips on the subject, don’t forget to visit this blog.